American exceptionalism is term that sticks in the craw of many foreigners. “Aren’t all countries exceptional?” they say. At the same time, though, most people around the world have a collection of images that they associate with America as well as a deep fascination with all things American.
As remarked by author Barry Sanders in his captivating presentation of American Avatar: The United States in the Global Imagination at The Heritage Foundation on March 19, no nation in the world commands the same intense scrutiny from those who live outside its borders—which de facto makes the United States “exceptional” by global acclamation.
However, one person will often have both positive and negative images of America that are at odds with one another. American Avatar makes a valiant attempt at sorting out images and their origins, separating those we can influence from those we cannot.
During the first 125 years of the republic, images about America arose from internal events and conditions, ideas of a democratic self-governing society and a land of opportunity, commerce, and the small but growing U.S. naval presence. In the 20th century, after U.S. international involvement in two world wars (three if you count the Cold War), images of the U.S. began to be shaped by U.S. foreign policy activities. America was variously viewed as being at times imperialist, an “evangelist for democracy,” an inconstant liberator, and a self-interested superpower.
Still other images of America come from our way of life and culture. People see America as glamorous, immoral, and free of want or oppression. These images, often inaccurate, are fueled by Hollywood.
America is by far the richest country in the world, and the rest of the world is highly dependent on the U.S. economy. People see the U.S. as self-interested while at the same time knowing that their own economies require the American economy to thrive. Various images of America rising from our economic power include stinginess, generosity, wastefulness, innovation, cultural leadership, and military dominance.
Images can be formed by reality or fiction, and many images are a mix of both. People often have access to only one news source, either controlled or influenced by governments hostile to the U.S., which can present skewed images.
How do images get selected as dominant? Recent events, memories, relatives living in the States, and other things help determine which images people will select to shape their views of America.
Certain aspects of anti-Americanism are immovable, argues Sanders. One is the fundamental opposition between American democratic liberalism, enlightenment ideas championing individual freedom and equality of opportunity, and European post-Enlightenment Romanticism, which ultimately leads to socialism. The anti-Americanism that is rooted in these deep philosophical differences is not something we can expect to change.
Another fact that is we cannot do much about is fear of change, which is quintessentially American. In traditional societies, hierarchy, constancy, and clearly defined roles shape people’s lives. Such people view change with a great deal of skepticism.
Yet Sanders also holds out hope that in one regard, we can influence images of America. Many people admire—even idolize—the idea of America as a universal symbol of freedom and democracy. The gap between this ideal of America and the reality of many people’s lives around the world can create envy and discontent. And when America fails to live up to its own promises or people’s expectations, the ensuing disillusionment and bitterness can be devastating.
So what specifically can we do? In Sanders’s view, we have to look beyond the opinion polls of the day and take a long and comprehensive view of U.S. foreign policy.
By striving to be more steadfast, maintaining compassionate concern for others’ safety, and sticking to principles of democracy and human rights in foreign affairs, we can create more positive predispositions. Equally importantly, we can help others create freer and more prosperous lives for themselves by applying the principles that made the U.S. great. We have to convince people that the ideal America they imagine is the real America, not an impossible dream.